Funding research: concentration needed?

Right now in Britain an argument is raging between different parts of the higher education as to how university research should be funded: should it be concentrated in a small number of leading research universities (and allocated strategically on that basis), or should it be directed to those demonstrating excellence as assessed by peer reviewers, regardless of the status of the institution in which they work?

In the concentration corner we find the Russell Group, the alliance of research-intensive universities, arguing that ‘world class universities’ are best placed to deliver quality research that makes a visible impact. In the excellence-only corner we find the University Alliance, representing a number of ‘research-emgaged’ universities, arguing that the evidence says there is ‘no direct correlation between volume and excellence outside some of the physical sciences’. Standing somewhere between them (but closer to the Russell Group) is the British government’s Department for Business Innovation and Skills, which recently argued, in the paper Higher Ambitions: the future of universities in the knowledge economy:

‘We must use scarce resources well. In future this should mean more research concentration, not less, especially in the high cost scientific disciplines.In a diverse higher education system, not every institution should feel that maximising its success in the research assessment exercise or recruiting doctoral students is central to its mission.’

This is a discussion we may also be about to have in Ireland, so we should probably be paying attention. However, there are significant differences between the research communities in Britain and here. The UK has over 100 universities with very diverse missions and very different characteristics. Ireland has, on the whole, only research universities with each having also a strong teaching mission, and in addition the research community (partly as a result of 10 years of PRTLI) is strongly integrated across all institutions. Furthermore, the system has been developed successfully because all of the funding bodies have focused on excellence as the driving criterion.

We do however need concentration, even if not institution-focused. We cannot fund everything equally, unless we we feel we do not need to have any particular impact anywhere. We need to develop areas where we can achieve global; recognition and lead the world, and we need to select these carefully. The ‘areas’ are probably not disciplines, but rather ones based on problems we can address in our research, or collaborations that can lead the academic discussion. This has been successfully developed in the sciences, and we may now at least want to ask whether similar methods can be employed in the humanities – not in order to stop the lone individual researcher, but rather so as to network him or her with others so that academic visibility can be enhanced.

For the next phase of economic and social development, Ireland needs to be recognised for its research. That requires a united and collaborative academic community across all institutions (including, it should be added, the Institutes of Technology). It is important that we do not endanger such collaboration.

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6 Comments on “Funding research: concentration needed?”

  1. iainmacl Says:

    There is of course the unstated challenge from those who believe in concentration and their influence on government. The ‘corridor of innovation’, or bus-lane of opportunism, or whatever its called comes to mind, I’m not sure to what extent there is really yet in Ireland a full appreciation of the opportunities afforded by genuine multi-institutional collaboration. The SUPA model would be one that is perhaps ideal for a small country and one which enables staff at every institution to feel part of a national research community. http://www.supa.ac.uk/

  2. Danny (from Russell Group) Says:

    Good article, though I should point out that RG and UA aren’t quite on opposite ends of the spectrum. RG also believe that only excellent research should be funded (‘selectivity’, as judged by Peer review) but also we need to focus on excellent research in institutions with the largest capacity- those who can provide large amounts of excellent research across a range of disciplines. This will be crucial for attracting clusters of businesses and providing greater economic and social benefits for the UK.

  3. kevin denny Says:

    Excellence should be rewarded at all costs and not cosy cartels of which we have enough in Ireland. The latter will generate academic sclerosis. With a handful of universities its not really an option to designate some as suitable for concentration and not others and, from what I can see, all have their strengths.
    In many disciplines, concentration is not that necessary and the lone scholar can do quite well if he or she is resourced properly. So lets say there is a great mathematician or historian or philosopher in one of our less-good uni’s. Why should they be disadvantaged relative to someone mediocre in a better place?
    This move to concentration is like the old industrial policy of “picking winners” which has generally proved to be a bad idea as it involves some civil servant deciding what is going to be successful. The market does a much better job. Likewise the market for ideas is the best way of allocating research funds: fund good scholars or research groups as long as they keep producing quality research. Its pretty easy to see who is and is not successful.

  4. Vincent Says:

    Ah well, when the English cop-on that it is not Oxford or Cambridge, nor the college system that works. But that it is the person, where once in, it matters not at all which college has the best.
    I suspect that the Tipperary Institute will have that physics/maths-rainmaker. But are you going to send your/those to Clonmel.
    Now, yesterday you placed me in ‘moderation’. Is there any chance you can say why.

    Ah never mind, there is little change that you will send to a rainmaker.


    • Vincent, regarding the moderation, that wasn’t me – the system automatically placed that post in moderation, and to be honest I have no idea why! Happy Christmas, and many thanks for your active participation here…


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